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Cursive: A Beautiful Diversity

Is cursive an outdated and unnecessary facet of American education? Once again, Common Core is causing an academic stir—this time surrounding its exemption of cursive from required curricula. Instead, the computer keyboard is becoming school’s chosen writing methodology, according to a Tuesday article [1] in The Atlantic: 

Opponents of script argue that needing to read and write in cursive is no longer relevant in an increasingly digital society. Some believe that cursive is essentially archaic, the importance of which is relegated only to checks, signatures, and the occasional love letter. They believe instructional time is better devoted to other classroom subjects that are included on standardized tests, and cursive is not necessary for academic achievement. After all, they say, we have computers and speech dictation machines.

The Washington Post heralded [2] the imminent demise of longhand in 2006, after only 15 percent of 1.5 million SAT test-takers used cursive. The rest printed in block letters. While some experts were unconcerned by the trend, others warned that the demise of handwriting could have unexpected consequences:

…Academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it’s important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades. Scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research. And others simply lament the loss of handwritten communication for its beauty, individualism and intimacy.

There are numerous practical skills, like those mentioned above, associated with cursive. After the Los Angeles Times printed an article [3] on the archaic nature of cursive, teachers responded [4] with various defenses—arguing that it improved coordination, focus, even mathematical skills. Steve Jobs, famous former Apple CEO, studied calligraphy [5] at Reed College and found inspiration in its beauty. He told Stanford graduates in 2005, “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” He added, “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.” Ironically, Microsoft mastermind Bill Gates is a significant financial sponsor [6] of the Common Core curriculum.

Beyond all the cognitive, academic, intellectual, and aesthetic benefits of cursive, there is perhaps one more. Cursive, despite its loopy letters and structured theory, truly develops with the individual hand. Thus, every person’s handwriting will be unique and personal. In an age of computers, where professors mandate essays in Times New Roman 12 pt, and a swath of fonts are available via Dafont [7], cursive preserves artistic diversity. And it is comforting to know that we few cursive users still have a unique print in the world. The Atlantic article sums it up nicely: “In a very meaningful way, the debate between cursive and print, or keyboards and handwriting, is entirely up to us: what type of mark do we want to leave?”

Follow @gracyolmstead [8]

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#1 Comment By ck On October 3, 2013 @ 10:08 am

Well, with NSA snooping into all things electronic, cursive and snail mail may make a comeback as an alternative, more secure way to communicate privately.

#2 Comment By mrscracker On October 3, 2013 @ 11:35 am

Guess it shows my age, but we studied penmanship(Palmer method) right through 6th grade.

#3 Comment By Court Merrigan On October 3, 2013 @ 11:50 am

“Cursive, despite its loopy letters and structured theory, truly develops with the individual hand. Thus, every person’s handwriting will be unique and personal.”

Isn’t this also true of block letters? I stopped writing cursive the instant teachers didn’t insist on it (5th grade?) because its laborious nature made it harder, not easier, to write out complex ideas, in my experience. My daughter’s a 1st grader and I don’t much care if she ever learns cursive. She’s not going to learn how to reload a typewriter ribbon, either.

Also, it should be noted that the calligraphy class St. Jobs took likely had little or nothing to do with cursive.

#4 Comment By Austin Rebreh On October 3, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

12 years ago I was a runner up in my school for best cursive penmanship. Alas, my skills deteriorated despite my continuation with this practice. My cursive is so bad that I had to resort to block letters (which is just as horrendous).

While I do find beauty in well written cursive its hard for me to romanticize penmanship. I can type very fast and a teacher has yet to tell me that s/he can’t read my work.

#5 Comment By Court Merrigan On October 3, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

I should add, though, that if you are *really* into penmanship, this is the place for you – [9]

I don’t much care about cursive, but I do like beautiful handwriting, and holding a graduate degree in Japanese, I appreciate fine calligraphy.

#6 Comment By Dennis On October 3, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

Not learning cursive because of its perceived lack of practical utility is just part of the continual dumbing down of America. Some things needs to be learned for their own sake, as part of a thorough, broad-based education, regardless of practical utility. Besides, how will these non-cursive types ever even sign their names?

Thankfully my nieces’ school (a non-government run school, of course) still teaches cursive starting in 2nd grade, and makes students use it for essay writing, etc.

#7 Comment By Court Merrigan On October 3, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

Dennis, my wife, who’s Thai and so never learned cursive, signs her name by … printing her name. No checks returned so far. Not sure hours and hours of educational time are necessary to learn how to sign one’s name in cursive.

#8 Comment By Annek On October 3, 2013 @ 12:38 pm


“Not learning cursive because of its perceived lack of practical utility is just part of the continual dumbing down of America. Some things needs to be learned for their own sake, as part of a thorough, broad-based education, regardless of practical utility. Besides, how will these non-cursive types ever even sign their names?

“Thankfully my nieces’ school (a non-government run school, of course) still teaches cursive starting in 2nd grade, and makes students use it for essay writing, etc.”

I agree. I know that some people might not find this to be a strong argument, but I feel very strongly that learning to write in cursive is important. Further, it doesn’t have to take a long time to learn it. I taught myself cursive handwriting in a week, at the end of 2nd grade when I found myself in a new school where the kids new cursive and I didn’t know anything about it. All I did was have my mother buy me a writing tablet that showed how to make the letters, and I practiced every day after school for about 3 hours each day. After the first week, I had just about the best handwriting in the class.

#9 Comment By robby On October 3, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

My need to be a unique beautiful snowflake isn’t sufficient enough to warrant my illegible cursive writing and put it on others to look at. I don’t think it will dumb down our society (if we’re comparing, do top achieving alternate countries still use cursive?). You can still teach people to use and write letters correctly in another style. I’m sure they said we’d be dumber when we stopped more intricate calligraphy, and yet we managed to invent computers and put people in space since we stopped the use of it.

#10 Comment By cka2nd On October 3, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

Definitely a purely cranky response:

Philistines! Bourgeois philistines! Utilitarian philistines!

Gods, do I loathe the corporate-friendly educational “reformers” of the early 21st Century. Between them, the Religious Right and the touchy-feely liberal-left mavens of self-esteem and “critical thinking” (but not knowledge, of course, oh no, heavens forfend one should learn to memorize even basic mathematics let alone significant dates in American history), I despair of modern American education.

All right, I’m breathing again.

#11 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On October 3, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

I was forced to learn Palmer Method, hated every second of it, had terrible penmanship and reverted to writing in block printing as soon as I was left alone by my teachers.

#12 Comment By philadelphialawyer On October 3, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

Is there anything, no matter how unnecessary, and trivial, that some “conservative” somewhere won’t not only insist on conserving it, but also argue that everyone else should too?

With computers, typing is now easier than writing, either printing or cursive. Calligraphy, as an art, I suppose, is one thing, but cursive writing, as a skill that everyone should learn, like reading? Why? Because it “used to” be useful? Should everyone learn how to saddle and ride a horse too, or drive a team? Those things “used to” be useful too. And while sports and recreation involving horses are fun things, and certainly worthwhile, there is no reason why a general education should include these skill. Folks who want to learn cursive can be like folks who want to ride horses…god bless them, but there is no reason why everyone else should have to be involved in it.

#13 Comment By Kate Gladstone On October 3, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

It was odd to see Steve Jobs and his calligraphy classes at Reed College mentioned in an article glorifying the join-bound, looping cursive that is disappearing from American classrooms. The calligraphy taught at Reed College (by various instructors — including Jobs’ instructor Robert Palladino, who is still living) is in many ways diametrically opposite to the cursive that THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE’s Ms. Olmstead exalts.
The style that was taught to Jobs at Reed College is called “italic.” Its letters are print-like in form, are without loops, and frequently aren’t joined to one another. (Even when joins are used, only about half of the letters in a given word are likely to join one another, because in italic the most difficult joins are not made.)
Crediting cursive for the design innovations of Steve Jobs is doubly dubious when one considers that Job’s own signature — for which he used cursive — is (like most signatures of cursive writers) illegible, ugly and filled with distorted, barely recognizable attempts at the cursive letter shapes that he is trying to produce.

As a handwriting teacher for 26 years (and director of the World Handwriting Contest for 13 years), I heartily agree that handwriting matters. But dies cursive matter? Research shows that the fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree. (Sources below.)

Reading cursive matters — immensely — but even small children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there’s even an iPad app to teach how: named “Read Cursive,” of course — [10] .) So why not simply teach children to _read_ cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, including some handwriting style that’s actually typical of effective handwriters?

Educated adults increasingly abandon cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority — 55 percent — wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. (Source below.) When most handwriting teachers shun cursive, why mandate it?

Cursive’s cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you graceful, adds brain cells, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

For instance:

The much-ballyhooed difference in SAT scores between cursive writers and non-cursive writers is … brace yourself … 1/5 of a point on the essay exam. That’s all.

(Yes, I checked with the College Board — see below for the source info they sent me — because not one of the many, many media that mention the “slightly higher” difference actually states _how_much_”slightly higher” the difference is. The College Board researchers who found the difference note, in their findings that this one isn’t statistically significant: in other words, it’s so small that it’s less than the difference you’d expect if the same person took the same test twice. In fact, it’s even smaller than the score differences between males and females taking the SAT.)

So far — in this article, this thread, and elsewhere — whenever a devotee of cursive has claimed the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident when others examine the claimed support:

/1/ either the claim (of research support for cursive) provides no traceable source,


/2/ if a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., an Indiana University research study comparing print-writing with keyboarding is usually misrepresented by cursive’s defenders as a study “comparing print-writing with cursive”),


/3/ the claimant _correctly_ quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

What about signatures? In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, then verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.
The individuality of print-style (or other non-cursive style) writings is further shown by this: six months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the writing on an unsigned assignment) which of her 25 or 30 students wrote it.
All writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills.

Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.


Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

/1/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at [11]

/2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at [12]

Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at [13]

College Board research breakdown of SAT scores (the cursive/printing information is on page 5)

[AUTHOR BIO: Kate Gladstone is the founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works and the director of the World Handwriting Contest]

Yours for better letters,

Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
and the World Handwriting Contest

#14 Comment By pilgrim On October 3, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

The one C I got in grade school (1-8) was in handwriting in 4th grade, if I remember right.

#15 Comment By Nan Jay Barchowsky On October 4, 2013 @ 6:23 am

The goal for handwriting instruction should be legible writing at age appropriate speed. Handwriting is worth teaching for all the reasons usually attributed to the cursive forms most commonly taught in US schools. The attribution is false. So far research applies those reasons to any alphabet used to teach writing by hand.

The goal is brought down by a huge misunderstanding.

Too many educators fail to stop and think about the fact that for about three years children learn to form print-like letters, writing them from top-to-bottom. Shapes and directionality of strokes are implanted in motor memory.

Later in second or third grade, motor memory must be reworked for letters that change direction of stroke and shape! It’s tough for lots of children, especially if “cursive” instruction is limited by available classroom time. And it is!

Why not allow print-script to continue with some modest guidance? Many people modify it to suit their individual hands by adding a few joins for their personal type of cursive.

For the most reasonable solution consider italic, a simple means to teach and learn to write by hand. Not so well known, but the method, italic, works in some USA schools and in other countries, notably Finland, the country with top educational rating globally.

Steve Jobs encountered italic at Reed College, not the form of loopy cursive commonly taught in US schools.

#16 Comment By Newflowers On October 4, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

As a catholic school girl, I learned cursive with an eraser on my wrist and a ruler wielding nun walking around the room. Maybe it’s all well and good to cry there is no need for cursive writing, but when entire classes of high school seniors don’t know how to sign their names on a document, I find that only knowing how to print has its downfalls.

Not all skills and worthy knowledge can be tested by filling in the correct bubble.

#17 Comment By stef On October 5, 2013 @ 7:39 am

Getty-Dubay Italic is far easier to learn, as the italic semi-cursive letters are essentially built up from the printed letters. There’s little need to learn whole new letter shapes (as with Palmer.)


#18 Pingback By Will There Be Anyone Left Who Can Read the Constitution? – Screenflex On October 16, 2013 @ 10:16 am

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